Who Gets To Attend A Top Law School?
WHO GETS INTO A TOP LAW SCHOOL?
(Originally posted in 2014, I’m updating this on 6/18/2019 – changes are in bold text):
What’s the difference between someone who gets accepted into Harvard Law and someone who doesn’t? Experience tells me there are two universal traits of people who get into top law schools: the quality of their undergraduate education, and their engagement in extracurricular activities and professional positions that show passions and a level of expertise in one or more subject areas. They also have high LSAT scores, unless they have overcome significant obstacles in their life in order to excel in academics and extracurriculars.
Top Law Schools are looking for thinkers – people who are not afraid of a challenge and were truly engaged in their educational and professional environments. If you phoned it in during your college years, doing the bare minimum academically while focusing on less intellectual endeavors, top law schools have the luxury of turning you away even if your LSAT score is 174+. When I review a law school applicant’s transcript and resume, it’s immediately obvious whether they took their college experience seriously and whether they have pursued the kinds of activities and positions that will help them compete with people at the top law schools. An internship on Capitol Hill isn’t enough unless it’s combined with a series of interesting pursuits and a record of excelling. For law school applicants who don’t have the luxury to pursue unpaid internships, law schools are looking for whether you balanced school and work well or just barely managed. Getting a 4.0 at Ohio State while working full time can get you into Harvard Law if your LSAT is in the right range (as one of my clients did this year) not everyone has to have traditional pre-law internships but the work experience should show advancement and intellectual engagement.
QUALITY OF UNDERGRADUATE EDUCATION
Attending a prestigious undergraduate institution puts you at an advantage in the eyes of the Top Law Schools. You’ve been tested against the nation’s best and brightest, and – presumably – engaged in rigorous coursework with renowned professors. Earning top grades and writing a thesis in this environment is something Top Law Schools appreciate. It also makes it highly likely you will have a letter of recommendation (or two or three) from professors who are truly in a position to evaluate your work and can compare you to past students who have gone on to Top Law Schools. An applicant from this background, especially one who has supplemented their time with volunteer efforts, travel, and interesting and well-rounded pursuits, is ideally positioned for success in the law school admission process. For the Fall 2014 application cycle to date, my applicants who have been admitted to Harvard Law attended Berkeley, Yale, Penn, Stanford, Dartmouth, and (yes) Harvard for their undergrad work. (Update for Fall 2019: Stanford, Trinity, Kenyon, Columbia (x2), Ohio State and Arizona State – and some still pending on the waiting list. Note: The ones from Ohio State and Arizona State had 4.0 GPAs and went through honors college programs).
Top Law Schools are unlikely to admit people who attended less impressive undergraduate schools, especially if there were opportunities you did not pursue (such as independent academic research, challenging courses, and intellectual pursuits outside of the classroom.) However, if you have a near perfect GPA and stellar academic accomplishments at a well-known and respected school, especially where your major is known to be rigorous, the fact that you didn’t go Ivy League may be forgiven. Examples include studying Philosophy at Rutgers and Business at the University of Southern California because these are departments that are particularly respected within the academic community. It also includes attending a college-within-a-college honors program.
If you started at a community college, changed majors several times, attended a state university near home where you had few opportunities to interact with faculty members, majored in something not known for rigor, like Communications or Legal Studies, and still only managed a 3.5 GPA, Top Law Schools are unlikely to take you seriously even if you absolutely kill the LSAT. In fact, a 3.5 at a respected university is a disadvantage in recent cycles. Top Law Schools are not compromising on GPA; they can forgive an LSAT that’s a bit low if everything else is in line and impressive but not a GPA because it’s earned over time.
For non-traditional applicants who have been out of school for many years, a lot can be forgiven if their work experience is truly impressive and if their LSAT score demonstrates academic abilities beyond what is evident from their transcript. But remember that Top Ten Law Schools don’t have any incentive to overlook these issues because they are able to fill their classes with applicants who did everything right.
What activities are Top Law Schools looking for? What actually impresses them? Here are a few examples:
• Participation in college athletics (no matter the division)/Olympic or other high-level competitive sports involvement;
• Significant volunteer experience at home or abroad regarding an issue you are particularly knowledgeable and passionate about;
• Learning another language, along with significant international and/or multi-cultural experience;
• Holding a leadership position within a journal, college newspaper, or political or service organization.
—Anything that demonstrates passion/knowledge/drive and direction. Even if it might be a bit controversial or distinctive.
What doesn’t impress Top Law Schools? Applicants who spent most of their time on fraternity and sorority involvements, whose internships are scattered and primarily include online marketing and social media management, who have not spent significant time volunteering in a meaningful capacity, and who only have traditional travel or study abroad experiences.
Merely having obstacles in your background won’t get you into a Top Law School; a lot of application fees are wasted by people who believe otherwise. The key to getting into a Top Law School is being able to show that despite growing up with significant disadvantages, you got yourself somewhere really amazing on your own two feet. In other words, it’s how you reacted to the obstacle, how you overcame the obstacle, that impresses Top Law Schools. One of these rare and amazing stories of triumph, coupled with impressive academic, extracurricular, and professional achievements makes Top Law Schools willing to dip lower on their LSAT score requirements. For example, if you couldn’t attend college so you joined the military, then earned multiple degrees while deployed. Or if you were a single mom and had to pay your way through school while managing your life and you still excelled. It’s the “overcoming” that matters most to law schools – that’s what shows your personal drive and motivation and that’s what brings a diverse viewpoint to the classroom and to the legal profession.